"How do you fund your travels?"
This is, by far, the question I get asked the most. Many assume this easy life comes easy. I can't even tell you how many people have accused me of being a "trustafarian" but I can tell you that I am certainly not privy to a trust fund, nor have I met a person with a massive trust living in their vehicle.
I blame social media, and the way #vanlife has glamorized living in a van or camper. The fact of the matter is, I and pretty much ever other vanner I know, live in poverty or pretty darn close to it. It's a rich life, for sure, but you trade quite a bit to go into what I call "early retirement" and spend very little time working a traditional job, in order to travel a lot.
As I sit writing this, in beautiful Yosemite Valley, I'm down to the last $50 in my checking account, with another 2-3 weeks before I start a seasonal summer job. A far stretch from my previous life, that included a steady salary paycheck, about four times what I currently make annually, but also many more expenses. The idea of being broke and homeless would've freaked me out back then. So how the heck did I get here?
My Corporate Life Story
I think the best way to explain my road life financing is to tell the story of how I got to this point, living on the road for almost two years and down to my last few dollars. So here goes...
For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to travel. Traveling, experiencing the world, it's places, spaces & cultures, has always been at the forefront of my life goals. Due to my traditional upbringing and societal norms, I believed the key to funding my travels was a cushy corporate marketing agency job with a hefty salary and paid time off. The more money I made, the less freedom I had to travel and the higher my living expenses grew. I was working well over full time and living fat paycheck to fat paycheck but not seeing the world. Even worse, the corporate mentality of being expected to fall into line for fear of being replaced if not done exactly as told, fell flat on me. I was terrible at being a corporate robot. So after rebelliously managing, one of the most successful markets in the country, for four years and developing two nationally implemented event marketing programs for a big tobacco client, the cushy agency gig was up for me.
Disillusioned with the corporate world, I began focusing my career in development & marketing for smaller family owned businesses. Basically, I found myself doing more of the same work for less money and not much more respect or appreciation of the time and effort being applied to my perfectionist level of work. After ten years of focusing my life on career goals, I was drained energetically & creatively, while deteriorating my individual sense of self and absorbed with work to the point where my mental & physical health were negatively affected, but the perks of job stability & paid time off, I was conditioned to believe were my ticket to world travels, were nowhere to be found.
Fed up with my unhappy and unhealthy state of affairs, and coming out of an emotionally tortuous five year relationship, I began fueling my fire for travel and spending time outdoors by treating myself to a massive tent that attached to the hatch of my SUV and weekend road tripping all over Florida. The more time I spent decompressing in nature, the more I realized that the thankless career I had poured myself into wasn't worthy of the stress I was letting seep into my life, especially while away from the work place and on my own personal time.
With every mile I drove or rode my bike to places in my home state that I'd never seen before, every outdoor adventure, every step hiked, every tent pitched, every fire started, every fresh water spring I dove into, every waterway I paddled down, every epic campfire meal cooked, every shooting star wished upon and every fireside chat about dreams of nomadic life, I began to find myself, reclaim my life and got back to focusing on my purest of dreams; the dream of traveling and experiencing life.
This new mindset and way of living did not go unnoticed by my employer. Certainly not when I began taking more unpaid time off to travel. Then, yet again, after more than four years of hard work and dedication to a business, I was relieved of my full time employment, without notice, while I was traveling for a long five day weekend in Costa Rica, with a group of fantastic friends. Upon returning back to Florida, and contacting my boss to inquire as to why I could no longer log into my email account or remote desktop access, I was informed that while they were pleased with my work, they were displeased with the amount of time I had been taking off and followed up my firing with an offer to work remotely as an independent contractor. Disgruntled, I decided to simmer over the offer before accepting. Little did I know at the time, but this was my ticket to freedom and a life of travel.
Nothing Left to Lose
So there I was, thirty-four years old, a retired professional dancer, ten years into my marketing career, working hourly from my couch, nursing a broken heart, not living my dreams, with nothing to show for all my life's work, except for a paid off car, an old salty Pomeranian, a tiny mid century duplex rental full of old things, along with the realization that I had not been living life for myself. I began to see that I was giving everything I had in me to be something that others wanted me to be, and it was never what I wanted for me. I dipped into to the depths of depression and scooped out a heaping helping of fucks that I didn't care to give anymore.
I also began connecting with other free spirited, travel & outdoor enthusiasts on social media. Instagram especially, became my tie to the life I had always hoped to live, away from Florida and out in the world. Instagram also provided me with the enticing opportunity to travel to Hawaii, on a wild haired whim, with the super hunky Tommy Erst, @longroadtonowhere, who I had befriended via the social media app a year earlier but hadn't met until I got off a plane in the Big Island to spend a week traveling & adventuring together.
With this fellow kindred free spirit, I crashed with dear Florida friends that made a yolo leap to living that Big Island life in Kona, camped on sacred beaches, kayaked with whales, swam in offshore reefs, jumped off cliffs, explored fresh water filled lava caves, hiked miles of tropical paradise, drove around the whole island and nearly died at Boiling Pots in Hilo (while Tommy didn't almost die, I certainly had a "life flashing before my eyes" moment in a flash flood). This was the life I wanted to live; traveling solo to meet others filled with wanderlust, experience other cultures & ways of life, seeing new lands, doing new things and living.
On the long flight back to Florida, I created a six month plan to get myself living on the road and traveling cross country. For what exactly? I wasn't too sure but I knew I had nothing left to lose, nothing tying me down to Florida anymore and I had everything to gain by doing what I wanted to do with my life. Just like John Muir said, the mountains were a callin' and I had to go!
My mantra became "go!!!" (with three exclamation points) and my focus for the next six months was go!!! time, doing whatever it takes to go live the life of my dreams.
My Six Month Plan:
(a quick & dirty bulleted list to getting into a quick & dirty van life)
- Make as much money as possible: for the first three months of my six month plan, work! (one exclamation point) was prioritized at the top of the task list.
- Save as much money as possible: I immediately stopped eating out, stopped going out & drinking with my friends, stopped shopping & going to estate sales, stopped going on dates, went on far less weekend adventures and rarely did anything that didn't ultimately prepare me for living on the road.
- Research rigs: I prioritized safety, reliability, efficiency & cost as my main criteria and utilized my friends & the web to decipher which motorhomes fit my criterion.
- Buy a rig: this was by far the scariest step of the planned process, for me. So much so that it needs its own blog post (coming soon).
- Make said rig into home: I had grandiose plans to do a build prior to going on the road but I didn't actually have the time. Ultimately, I am glad I didn't build before living in my camper, mostly because I had no clue what I was getting myself into and the things that were important to me then are not what I would deem functional enough to live in a tiny space.
- Learn how to live in a mobile home: This was completely foreign to me. I talked to as many people as possible who lived in RVs or mobile homes about their experiences and I learned quite a bit but nothing really prepares you for living on the road, like living on the road. You go into it blind and sink or swim.
- Inventory: I went through everything I owned, starting with my three closets, and separated my belongings into five categories; trash, sell, donate/gift, store and suitable for van life.
- Edit: I realized I deemed too much "suitable for van life" and cut that in half at least twice.
- Get a storage unit: I really, really wish I hadn't done this. I held onto so much but once you live a dialed back life, you realize that there's very little that you actually need to survive and be very, very happy.
- Sell, donate or give away all my personal items.
- Give proper notice to vacate my rental house of four years.
- Set up a "permanent address".
- Cancel utilities, subscriptions and set up paperless automatic bill payments.
- Move out of house and into mobile home.
- Drive off into the sunset.
A Word of Caution
The focus of this blog entry is to be informative and answer that question of "how do you fund your van life?", not to encourage people to quit their jobs and live in a van. If anything, I hope this blog discourages certain folk from making the leap to van life.
This is my bit of cautionary advice; Van life is not for everyone! Before you take the leap into full time van life, make darn sure it's what you want. Living in a home that sits on four wheels is not easy and you will have to give up much of what you've become accustomed to in modern home life. Yes, you will not spend as many hours & days working a traditional job but everyday of life on the road is an endeavor. From making ends meet financially to finding safe & sound places to park/lay your head each night, you will be working diligently to sustain the mobile lifestyle. If van life is not the life you'd sacrifice for and do just about anything to make & keep as the foundation of your lifestyle, then all that hard work, both paid & unpaid, will just not be worth it.
Do Whatever It Takes
It doesn't matter where you are, what your work or salary history is or whether the job is too big or too small, when you need money you take the job(s) and you do what it takes to keep rolling. Don't sacrifice your ethics, morals or personal well being for the almighty dollar but also don't have an ego about the work you take. I wish I could take credit for the line about not having an ego but my friends & family from the road, Beth & Yeager @traveling.trio, said something along those lines during a Modern Nomads podcast interview, recorded in my Bandit. Both artists & makers, this traveling duo (plus their pooch, Alfredo, makes three) found themselves in one of many different short term jobs, including campground hosts, which required them to wash public pit toilets on a daily basis and not for the kind of pay you'd think would compensate for hosing down human waste. It really stuck with me and I kept it in mind anticipating that my consulting work with my previous full time employer would eventually run out.
The contractor job I was doing for the last year and a half was primarily graphic arts and packaging design work. This would require use of wifi, which I sought out for free at coffee shops, restaurants, lodges, visitor centers, laundromats, friend's houses, etc., to download & send art files, as well as correspondence with my employer, colleagues, vendors and clients, but allowed for me to do the majority of my work offline on my laptop. I'd fit in work during lunch breaks from climbing, hiking or other adventures, while hanging out in my camper in remote locations, even at the crag in between climbing with several friends. When I had the option to work, I made work my priority. On average, I was working 6-8 hours per week, over the course of a year. Far less than the 40-60 I was working in years passed. However, this comes with far less of an annual income and requires a very large lifestyle adjustment.
You will learn to live on much less than you ever have before, because having less money is part of having more time, freedom & the means to travel. For me and pretty much every other full time road traveler I've met, the biggest part of financially sustaining life on the road is living on a much tighter budget and spending/consuming less overall.
It's the Time of the Season for Money
What most of us travelers seem to do, in order to fund our financially impoverished but vitality rich lifestyle, is to take on contract and/or seasonal work; work that allows us to generate funds, then keep on moving. When the road is your home and you live a nomadic lifestyle, the idea of staying in one place for too long is stifling. We, that cannot deny our wanderlust, do not take to being tied to a place, person or job for the long term. Therefore, working gigs with a foreseeable end date is the happy medium for sustaining this lifestyle and doing whatever it takes to do so.
We may become forest service workers, wildfire fighters, trail crew, climbing stewards, mountain guides, river guides, gear shop employees, burger flippers, bakers, food prep & servers, coffee baristas, bar tenders, yoga instructors, massage therapists, hairstylists, fashion stylists, vintage buyers, construction workers, groundskeepers, campground hosts, park rangers, camp counselors, teachers, mushroom foragers, fly fishing guides, boat crew, Alaskan fishermen, farmers, marijuana trimmers, traveling nurses, skydiving instructors, helicopter pilots, eco-activists, environmental protection researchers, sustainable home builders, artists, wood workers, makers, designers, writers, video bloggers, film makers, photographers, models, brand ambassadors, travel lifestyle brand creators and for me this summer, the "I'm happy to do any job" girl at a brine shrimp plant, but we are travelers first and these temporary hats we wear are not about climbing career ladders or growing pensions for retirement. We take these jobs to continue being present in each day, to avoid checking out & clocking in to a soul sucking 9 to 5, to realize our dreams & personal life goals, to be happy defining ourselves by our passions, character & stories rather than our job titles, and to truly live.
Photos of van lifers & full time road travelers doing work compiled from the following instagram friends:
@traveling.trio, @jeffyridesbikes, @mrmountainlion, @__la_vita_bella__, @tenbrocki, @sterlingptaylor, @daniyellg, @chrlzmarks, @blisseveryday, @wild_bear_medicine, @iwishiwasthemoontonight, @twoguysgoodbuys, @carlchristy, @lolo_viking, @mbernhardt_, @bt.way, @bp_bogdano, @astralincoln, @traveling.trio.beth, @this.wild.dream, @anamericanroadstory, @colbeyvanaggoner, @mplong.adventures, @divophoto, @arni_coraldo, @swami_swartz, @dazaha82, @childnomadica, @gypsealaysea, @thetravelingchans, @jacqueline_getawayvan, @roadlyfe, @zoemanz, @sarah_a_ferguson, @haileythelen, @longroadtonowhere, @nomadic_amanda, @logan_leggs, @weavegold, @thewickedstone, @silly_dai, @tinyhousetinyfootprint, @onewildlifeco, @thetravelingvegans, @irietoaurora, @agirlandhervan, @onechicktravels, @gobigemma, @mhwordell, @ryandereamer, @campbycamp, @charlezmalasana, @ben__pryce, @vinnymo, @vivalavacay